Why should kids read these?
Note: The Romans basically took the Greek mythology and changed all the names from Greek to Latin.
Myths are great. Kids love them: they are scary and full of adventure. But they are not for the little ones: they are scary, gory, and graphic. For that reason, you even need to be careful about which editions you use with children or you may finding yourself having to explain some things that you really don’t want to get into with young children.
The gods and goddesses were all pretty wild and some of them changed sexual partners as often as they did clothes. Actually, more often.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Luckily, since the stories have always been around, people have been writing them down and publishing them in versions appropriate for children for more than a century, at least, so there are plenty of great options at all price points.
In fact, I would be extra careful about pre-reading the more modern ones because some of them, in the interest of accuracy, get into some areas I personally do not want to have to explain to a young child. Remember, all of the stories are based on the oral tradition: there is no one “right” way to tell them. If you want to familiarize young children with the stories, there is no harm in altering them to make them suitable.
If you have any lingering doubts, take a look at the Bible and compare it to the version of the stories we tell kids. Ever read the book of Esther? I suggest you do because it’s a great story, but it also has a lot to do with concubines. And that’s in The Holy Bible!
The advantage to the options given here is that they are both free and from a time when people were even more conservative about what they told children than people are now, so most of them are pretty safe.
They were also usually written by experienced educators and/or people who could read the original Greek, which means that the interpretations are very high quality too.
Educators have long since recognized the value of introducing kids to mythology at an early age. Greek/Roman mythology underpins everything in Western culture. Even early Christian beliefs were informed by Roman culture since most early converts, other than Jewish people of course, were pagans, and this was their religion.
The stories also appear everywhere in literature in English, and usually there is an assumption that readers know mythology.
The only thing I would argue is more important, from the point of view of “Western” cultural literacy is the Bible
Note: “Western” in this sense means the western hemisphere: Europe and all the cultures that stemmed from it. Even Arab culture is informed by these myths in addition to their own stories. See The Lois Level’s FREE Fairy Tales and Folk Stories for Kids, Teens, and Adults for more on this topic and good editions of The Arabian Nights for children.
I hope you are as excited to explore these as I am to share them!
As long as you have appropriate retellings, you really can’t go wrong with this stuff!
A Good Background for Adults
But before we get started on all of the free stuff for the kids, here is some direction to get you started.
The most comprehensive collection of Greek and Roman myths is Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. It is also a good reading level for kids about age 12 and up although it is not free.
This small paperback volume has all of the myths plus a section of Norse mythology in the back.
I use the section in the back, where the minor tales are summarized, as the basis for a storytelling activity for grades 7 or 8. Contact me if you would like more information on organizing mythology units for middle school.
To understand the meaning of the myths to discuss with younger children or use as a text with older teenagers, Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth is the place to start.
The Usborne collection of Greek Myths is very nice, if a bit pricey, for children ages 10 and up with color illustrations and good historical backgrounds.
If your kids get into mythology, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series has practically become a classic in and of itself.
At publication time, the graphic novel of the first novel in the series is available on Kindle Unlimited Freetime Unlimited, which is only $2.99 US a month for Amazon Prime members and free for the first month.
Use a tablet rather than a Kindle reader to read.
The boxed set of the regular series is shown below.
This series is so popular that you should be able to get e-books or print books through your American public library easily. All of the three library systems I use show multiple digital and print copies of each book that are readily available to borrow without wait times.
If you aren’t sure how to access digital books through the public library, read this post from The Lois Level: Subscribe to Your Public Library.
If you still aren’t sure, call your library: even if your library is closed due to Coronavirus (at publication time), there is likely staff available by phone during normal operating hours. Each library’s system is different, so you really need to speak to someone who knows it. Usually staff are happy to walk patrons through the process.
The Graphic version of Book 1:
Percy Jackson boxed set:
FREE Mythology Books that are Open Sourced
Note: Most of the books discussed here are appropriate for ages 9-10 and up, but there is a section of books for 6-8 year olds below.
As promised, there are plenty of options for Greek and Roman Mythology that are completely open sourced, and even more if you pay a dollar or two.
Notes: A version available on Amazon is shown. Always check the prices as they change all the time. Links to completely open versions are given if they are available. Another method is to check Project Gutenberg.org to get copies that can be shared with students, if necessary. Using Project Gutenberg is a little more complicated, but it is possible to get copies of the texts that can be shared digitally without having to require log-ins. Teachers should be able to get support through their schools.
All of these books are in the public domain, so free download is completely legal.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales
If the name “Nathaniel Hawthorne” seems a bit familiar, it’s because he wrote The Scarlet Letter, which many if not most of us (Americans) read in school. That’s the famous book about the Puritan woman who was forced to wear an A as punishment for being an adulteress. Fiction, by the way.
Hawthorne also wrote a handful of books for children, and two of them, The Wonder Book for Girls and Boys and Tanglewood Tales, are collections of stories from Greek mythology.
The organization of the books, particularly The Wonder Book, is charming. There is a frame story that involves a college student, Eustace Bright, telling the stories to a group of children at a home called Tanglewood.
If you remember reading The Scarlet Letter, you might also remember that Nathaniel Hawthorne loves himself a good frame story. If you remember reading “The Custom House”, the 50 page opener to The Scarlet Letter, you will know I’m speaking with a bit of sarcasm…anyway, rest assured that this frame story is actually charming, particularly in The Wonder Book, where there is an opener for each story that sets the stage and and “afterward” where the children and Eustace Bright discuss the story.
Before diving in, however, check out the link to the Wikipedia article on The Wonder Book because Hawthorne also got pretty inventive with the titles of these stories, and you won’t know what in the heck they are if you just look at his titles.
I’m sure he did this to make the stories more memorable and accessible for the kids, but it’s a little confusing if you know the stories by other names.
I’ve put the list from Wikipedia below for your convenience.
Titles from Tanglewood Tales:
“The Gorgon’s Head” – recounts the story of Perseus killing Medusa at the request of the king of the island, Polydectes.
“The Golden Touch” – recounts the story of King Midas and his “Golden Touch”.
“The Paradise of Children” – recounts the story of Pandora opening the box filled with all of mankind’s Troubles.
“The Three Golden Apples” – recounts the story of Heracles procuring the Three Golden Apples from the Hesperides’ orchard, with the help of Atlas.
“The Miraculous Pitcher” – recounts the story of Baucis and Philemon providing food and shelter to two strangers who were Zeus and “Quicksilver” (Hermes) in disguise.
Baucis and Philemon were rewarded by the gods for their kindness; they were promised never to live apart from one another.
“The Chimæra” – recounts the story of Bellerophon taming Pegasus and killing the Chimæra
Here is a completely open linked version that include color scans of the originals: A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys by Nathaniel Hawthorne
And here is the sequel, Tanglewood Tales. This is another set of myths, sadly without the frame stories this time.
Here is a link to an open version of the stories, also with original illustrations:
Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne
If you’re going to use these stories, you should probably talk to the kids about Hawthorne a little bit because he will probably come up again when they are in high school. Fun fact is that Nathaniel Hawthorne lived right next door to Louisa May Alcott in Concord, Massachusetts, and you can visit his home as well as hers.
You can also go swimming at Walden Pond nearby, where Thoreau “roughed it” (sort of) while writing Walden.
Mythology Collections by Classic Children’s Authors
Andrew Lang is best known for his series of fairy tale books named for colors, but he also lent his knack for making classic stories interesting and enjoyable to kids to mythology with his Tales of Troy and Greece.
Charles Kingsley is famous for his classic children’s novel The Water Babies, which is definitely worth a read. He also did a retelling of many of the same stories as Lang in his book, The Heroes.
While these books are good for roughly the same age group as Hawthorne, bot Kingsley and Lang use slightly more accessible vocabulary. Neither book has a frame story.
Books for Younger Children, ages 6-8
For the most part, I consider mythology good for kids about 9 or 10 and up, but there are a few good books where stories from mythology have been written for younger children in a way that they can understand and also possibly read for themselves.
All kinds of stories are good for kids, but it doesn’t hurt to introduce them to classics early that will stay with them their whole lives. There are so many important things to know about, why not start early.
Mary E. Burt takes on Plato, Ovid and others you probably don’t even know.
Burt was a teacher turned writer who who published a volume of stories, Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers that she had used in classroom with children as young as kindergarten. At first, the stories struck me at TOO moralizing, but honestly, they grew on me. Be sure to check out the next to last story, “Atlantis, the Lost Island”, before you judge.
Click here for a full text version available on a web page: Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers by Mary E. Burt
Emma M. Firth takes on the Pantheon of the Gods
Emma M. Firth’s collection of Greek myths focuses on the Pantheon, which is where I always start when teaching mythology. These stories are good for younger kids or older kids who struggle with reading a bit…or if you want to coherently do the Pantheon.
When you are giving kids books with a lot of ideas, going with a text that’s easy for them to read is a good idea.
It gives them the “mental space” to think hard.
James Baldwin takes on the adventure tales
Baldwin is another educator turned author, so he also knew what he was doing when it came to writing for kids. His Old Greek Stories are retellings of many of the same stories covered in the above settings, but with language and style accessible for younger kids.
The full text of this book is available online: Old Greek Stories by James Baldwin.
Alfred J. Church and Epic Poetry for Kids
Alfred J. Church was an English clergyman who discovered early in his career that he had a knack for retelling classics in an interesting way that made them accessible for lots of people, and luckily he put it to good use.
In many of his books, he retained the style of the original (which remember, in the case of Greek works, would be translations language as well as revision of style). For that reason, these books are better for middle school, high school, and definitely adults.
He also wrote historical novels that manage to get a lot of history in while keeping the plot exciting, so those are also recommended for mostly older readers.
Astoundingly, though, he also took on the three most famous epic poems, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, and retold them in language and prose to suit children 9 and above…yes, that’s age nine, not ninth grade (which is when I was assigned The Odyssey).
He also wrote a historical novel for children this age about their own odyssey from Athens to Sparta, which is the perfect tie-in to all of these fanciful stories.
Read AND LISTEN to this book on the Internet here: The Iliad for Boys and Girls
Full text available on the Internet here: The Odyssey for Boys and Girls
Full text available on the Internet here: The Aeneid for Boys and Girls
Full text available on the Internet here: Three Greek Children
Read more about Alfred J. Church and find a bibliography of his other work here.
What are your favorite stories from Greek mythology? Comment below.
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